The Fall Nuisance: Balsam Apple
By Chris Lechowicz, SCCF Wildlife & Habitat Management Director
In late summer and early fall, the balsam apple (Momordica charantia) puts on a show in Southwest Florida as the exotic vine with bright orange fruit climbs to the tops of shrubs and small trees. The soft leaves, containing five (maple leaf-shaped) lobes, can cover an entire landscaped or natural area if left unchecked. Its orange, melon-like seed case contains a concoction of gooey liquid and bright, red seeds that quickly attracts your eyes. At first glance, the fruit may resemble a delicious ripe berry or cherry filling inside, but the vivid coloration also hints at danger.
The orange fruit of this plant is used in Africa and Jamaica for medicinal purposes, as well as a food item, but can only be eaten when it is still green (unripe). The liquid around the red seeds are said to taste like tapioca, but the red seeds are known to be toxic. Both the fruit and leaves are eaten as a vegetable in several African countries. Other names for this plant are balsam pear and African cucumber. In Southwest Florida, it’s often called “stink vine” due to the unique smell it emits while removing them by hand.
This exotic plant escaped from cultivation in 1993 in Florida and has spread as far as the panhandle. It is a nuisance to land managers, especially in freshly restored areas because they quickly grow in disturbed soils and can quickly out-compete planted native plants. Constant pulling and/or spraying of new balsam apple plants must be done to allow slow-growing native plants to mature and gain size. It is a sun-loving plant, however, and does not thrive well in shady areas. If removed by hand, the vine must be pulled out with its root, or it will quickly grow back.
On Sanibel, the balsam apple is somewhat common in disturbed areas such as yards, landscaping around businesses, and conservation lands that border these areas. Birds spread their seeds, so no place is immune from intrusion. The peak of its dominance appears to be in late summer, when it can completely engulf low-to medium-height trees and shrubs. This species dies off over the colder months and does not begin to become a problem again until the early summer.